Thanks to Sunriver Resort in Oregon for hosting Whitney’s family.
Bend, Oregon is one of the hottest cities in the United States. Many people from California are visiting or moving to the city. It’s a haven for adventure seekers given its proximity to mountains, forests, rivers, and high desert badlands. Bend is a destination year-round, but you’ll find the greatest access May through October. Here are some picks from Whitney and Maureen on what to do and where to stay during a trip to Central Oregon that your family is sure to enjoy.
Favorite Things to do in Bend, OR with Kids
Bend is a destination for outdoor adventurers, and having kids doesn’t necessarily stand in the way. Families can participate in hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, skiing, and more, depending on your child’s age. There are also slower-paced options for families who simply want to enjoy the scenery and smell the pines.
Riverbend Park, Bend
Riverbend Park is a gem. As the name suggests, it’s situated along the Deschutes River. Lush grass is perfect for kicking a soccer ball, playing tag, or eating a picnic lunch.
During the summer, the park is a launching pad for river floating, kayaking, and other water sports. My kids simply enjoyed playing along the rocky shoreline and wading into the water. Stay within an arm’s reach though because the river can move swiftly, and river floaters stream in nearly non-stop in the warm summer months.
Location: 799 SW Columbia St, Bend
Deschutes River Trail
Just up the river from Riverbend Park, is the Deschutes River Trail through the South Canyon. The path is about 3 miles and travels alongside the water. It’s beautifully maintained and may have you understand why so many people are flocking to Bend. You’ll pass by hundreds of pine trees and gentle rapids, and cross a bridge to the other side of the river. There are also several river access points if you are interested in swimming, paddle boarding, or canoeing.
The trail isn’t challenging, but there is some slight elevation change and rocky surfaces on the east side that make strollers difficult to manage. My 6-year-old child could handle the hike, but my preschooler only lasted about a third of the way before asking to be carried. Trek in either direction but I suggest beginning on the west side of the river. This way you’ll end at Farewell Bend Park, which has a delightful playground that offers easy motivation for little hikers.
Bend’s Old Mill District
Old Mill District is a new, upscale shopping and entertainment district. There are lots of restaurants, a movie theater, and other family-friendly activities. Go here to rent bikes and tour the city on two wheels. We used Wheel Fun Rentals, which offered options for kids who don’t know how to ride, such as bike trailers and tag-a-long bikes.
Bend has hundreds of miles of bike trails. Go the urban route and follow the river toward Drake Park and Old Bend, which is super charming. Or bike through the trees on the path along SW Century Drive. The city has plenty of food trucks and family-friendly beer gardens to help keep you fueled along the adventure.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument
Hike through lava fields and around the rim of a volcano at Lava Lands, a part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. It’s one of many volcanoes within the Cascades mountain range near Bend. The paths are smooth (perfect for strollers) and the landscape is out of this world. Plus, the name itself—Lava Lands—will get your kids excited!
Start at the visitor center. It’s small but jam-packed with interesting exhibits. Kids can pick up a nature booklet to keep them engaged along the hike. Follow the Trail of Molten Land through the lava field, which looks like a sea of moon rocks. The approximate 1-mile path is paved and has interpretive displays throughout to learn more about the thousands-year-old landscape. It’s very easy with a few short, steep sections that can easily be bypassed. During the walk, you’ll also catch glimpses of the Deschutes National Forest, the Cascades, and Lava Butte—your next destination.
Take a shuttle or drive up to Lava Butte. From there, you’ll be able to walk along the rim of the caldera and near the lookout tower. It can get extremely windy at the top of this butte, so we didn’t feel comfortable walking the Rim trail with our little ones. However, the views and opportunity to peer inside of a volcano make the trip worth it!
Continue exploring the trails or venture into the nearby Lava River Cave. We opted to drive to the Benham Falls trailhead for a short hike to the waterfalls. This destination displays how powerful the Deschutes River can be; it was beautiful. The next day, we traveled to Paulina Lake, a part of Newberry and about 30 minutes away, to see more volcanic rocks and hike to thermal hot springs. This is another fun day trip.
Many features of Lava Lands are open seasonally. Check schedules before you arrive. National Park passes are allowed here. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase Northwest Forest Service day passes on site. Costs are typically associated with parking, shuttle service, or cave entry, and range from $3-$5.
High Desert Museum, Bend
Across the highway from Newberry National Volcanic Monument, the High Desert Museum is worth a visit. It features permanent and rotating exhibits, plus wildlife.
Learn about native communities, local art, and the unique features of the high desert, and interact with animals commonly found in the landscape, including river otters, birds of prey, and reptiles. The space is very welcoming to families. It has stroller-friendly paths, an onsite cafe, and an engaging playscape. Prices vary depending on the season. Expect to pay about $20 per adult and $12 per child; kids ages 2 and younger are free.
Location: 59800 US-97, Bend, OR
Smith Rock State Park, Deschutes County, Oregon
Smith Rock State Park is considered one of the seven wonders of Oregon. I don’t disagree. The canyon is beautiful and a mecca for rock climbers. There are also several hiking options for families. Due to the terrain and difficulty, I recommend visiting if you have children who are in grade school or older. The park is located in Redmond, about a 40-minute drive north of Bend. The terrain is harsh with hot, arid temperatures in the summer and cold, windy conditions in the fall and winter.
The state park sits at an intersection of a river, canyon, farm fields, and so many stunning rocks. There are several trail options, but many required a high level of technical skill. We walked over two miles out and back along the River Trail. There are a few other options that follow the Crooked River and appear to be family-friendly paths. Thrill-seeks may be more inclined to traverse the Misery Ridge trail.
Our family ventured to the park during the fall. The wind was relentless, but we were able to find some relief at various points in the trail because the rocks blocked the wind. We were warned not to visit in the late spring and summer months because the temperatures are sky high. If you’re not into hiking, there are a few picnic tables to drop in for lunch with a view.
Location: 3 miles east of US-97 in Terrebonne, OR 97760
The Paulina Plunge, Lake Pine
One of the highlights of our Central Oregon road trip was a full-day adventure about 30 minutes from Sunriver called Paulina Plunge. The staff takes you away on a bus, gives everyone in the family mountain bikes, and leads a gentle but fun downhill ride, including three stops at waterfalls and natural water slides that you can jump in.
We are not a mountain biking family. In fact, the requirement was that kids know how to ride a bike with handbrakes, and my daughter white-lied her way in (she had heard of hand brakes), but we all loved it. It was thrilling and exhausting. The hiking from the bike trails to the waterfalls was more challenging than the biking, so this trip is not for seniors who are not outdoors-people.
Where to Stay Near Bend: Sunriver Resort
About 30 minutes from Bend, OR is Sunriver Resort. That makes it a 7.5 hour drive from Berkeley. Sunriver is more than a hotel complex with restaurants and pools. It’s a planned community with condos, houses, and hotel-style lodging spread around 35 miles of flat, paved bike paths.
The Village at Sunriver serves as a downtown area, essentially an outdoor mall equipped with a full-sized grocery store, numerous cafes and restaurants, and other tourist shops, including those that will rent you kayaks, bikes, or inner tubes.
Situated next to the Deschutes River, rafting, paddling and floating are some of the popular activities for guests at Sunriver Resort. On my family’s summer road trip, which stretched from Marin County to Sunriver, OR over a one-week period, we had already completed a long paddling adventure just days before arriving, so we didn’t actually do a river trip, but we checked out the boathouse.
We spent most of our time exploring the grounds on the bikes we rented at Sunriver’s Bike Barn.
While the pool was great, with a toddler pool, a waterslide adjacent and a bar in the enclosure, and we logged many hours there, Sunriver is really an ideal destination for outdoor activity enthusiasts. In fact, it might be most ideal for a vacation with a large multi-generational group, with varying levels of interest in the outdoors, because some folks can read on the porch, while others put miles on their bikes, play tennis, or book a day-long river rafting adventure that leaves from The Village.
Like a cruise ship, there are many programmed activities around Sunriver, including ones where you can leave your kid for much of the day, but they all cost extra. You’ll find tie-dyeing, movie nights, s’mores making, and more. This place could not be more family-friendly.
We stayed in a Lodge Village Suite (see it here) courtesy of Sunriver Resort and liked it so much we booked an extra night on our own dime. It included a kitchen and a loft with two beds, so we ate in our unit for breakfast and lunch.
Price: About $315/night for a suite of this size — 2 queen beds and nearly 1000 square feet — and location during the last week of August, which seemed to be a quiet period for summer.
Our ground-level room faced the golf course, with enough grassy space of our own for playing catch or jumping off the porch railing, if you are so inclined.
For dinner, we went to The Village, which boasts a miniature golf course, bumper cars, and an array of bouncy jumper things. There is a little train that goes around, too, to keep you occupied (and spending money) while you wait for your dinner table.
On our last night, my husband and I made our kids pasta in the room, then left them alone there (they were 8 and 10 years old) for 90 minutes while we dined in the trendy restaurant in the lodge.
The rental homes, of which there are at least a thousand, no joke, are booked through Sunriver, too. The homes, condos, and cabins are in flat wooded areas, still accessible by the network of paths, but further from the lodge. Many are a shorter walk to The Village. If you want to share a living room and meals with extended family, this is the way to go. But make sure to confirm that your house rental includes access to the pool if that’s important to you.
While we were at Sunriver, I kept thinking it would be perfect for a cousins’ meet-up. United offers non-stop flights from SFO to Bend, OR.
Location: 17600 Center Drive, Sunriver, Oregon, 97707
Have you visited Bend as a family? What are your recommendations? Tell us in the comments.
Lodging, bike rentals, and a horseback riding outing were provided to my family by Sunriver Resort, a Destination Hotel for the purpose of this review. Recommendations on things to do in Bend with kids by Maureen Burke.